Sunday, 24 August 2014

Living God, Living Church

This is one of those gospel stories we’ve probably heard dozens of times before. Jesus goes into the district of Caesarea Phillipi with the disciples. Now this isn’t any old city. It is a Roman city and they are surrounded by the god’s of the Roman Empire. In this of all places, Jesus says to the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13)
And they come up with a bunch of possible answers. “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus turns to all of them and says, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mathew 16:14) Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” Talk about a bold proclamation! Especially in a place where they are surrounded by stone carvings of the Roman god’s. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)
Amazing isn’t? We sit here worshipping together and in some strange way it starts with Jesus saying, “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church.” Now I don’t think Jesus had in mind churches like we know today. He probably imagined people worshiping this living God in the synagogues. Still, here we sit gathered in Jesus’ name because Peter and others had the nerve to proclaim boldly to anyone who would listen that “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” More than two thousand years later that church with all its successes and all its failures still clings to the promise of a living God. 
But churches, not just United Churches, are faced with hard times. Some of it is bad PR on our part. People think that churches are judgement, unfriendly and unwelcoming. Some of it is the changing place of church in society. Sunday mornings are no longer reserved for church attendance. It is hard for those of us who remember full pews and Sunday schools bursting at the seams to know that we are faced with budgets that are stretched to the limit and buildings that are beautiful but bigger than we need or can afford. And it makes me wonder what is next for this church – the church of Jesus, the messiah, son of the living God. 
Recently Scott attended some church meetings by the Edge Network which is trying to help congregations who are wrestling with some of these hard questions.  He brought home the gift of a new word – well two words linked together in a new way. Discontinuous change. “Discontinuous change” happens when we struggle to understand why the ways we have functioned in the past no longer produce the same results.  
And isn’t that where we are in the church? The things that worked once no longer produce the same results. The things we’ve always done seem to fall flat. The world has changed and that leaves who sit in the pews on Sunday mornings trying to figure out what to do. We wonder if the church even has a place in this new world. And if we do, what is it? Hard questions with no easy answers or instant fixes. 
Sarah Cunningham’s book Portable Faith writes about finding new ways of being church. She begins with a story of a middle aged woman behind the desk at the local bond office who says to her, “There’s at least a dozen churches within a four block radius of here and that doesn’t change anything. … The city is the same as it’s always been. Same problems, same hardships, same cycles. Churches hold weekly services for anyone who wants to come, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they impact people beyond their own buildings.” (Portable Faith, pg. 1) 
Cunningham continues by writing, “…despite growing up as a pastor’s kid and logging hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours in church pews. I knew in the sinking, what-is-true part of my gut that “coming” was not the verb that Jesus had used in his parting shot to the disciples. “Come join us” was decidedly different invitation than “go into all the world.” And “inviting ones” was almost the polar opposite identity as “sent ones,” the term attached to those first believing apostles who bore the message of Jesus.”  (Portable Faith page 3) 
Peter was a sent one. He started life doing what his father before him did – fishing. Then he met Jesus and everything changed. He quite literally left everything to follow Jesus. He went to places he’d never been and he even got a new name, “Peter.” Rock. After Jesus’ resurrection, he didn’t stay in his hometown. He went and spread the word about Jesus wherever he could because he knew that Jesus was the son of the living God and that is what made all the difference. 
Now it is our turn today to pick up from Peter and all the faithful who’ve gone before us left off. It is our turn to share the good news of Jesus, Messiah, son of the living God. And we can. We’ve just gotten out of practice. We all grew up hearing that religion and politics aren’t something you talk about in polite company. Here’s the problem, if we don’t talk about why we come to church, if we don’t talk about what God has done for us, if we don’t talk about why we are followers of Jesus, how will anyone know about the living God whose love changes everything?
And here something else we’ve forgotten, people want to know. If you go to the Spirituality section in the bookstore it is full of books for people searching for answers to the meaning and purpose of life. Why not share ours? There are several longitudinal studies that link attendance at religious services with lower rates of depression. So going to church is good for you. We have something so special in the church and we need to share it with others. 
We don’t have the luxury of being polite or holding back. There was a time when I was outside the walls of churches that I would actively work at not telling people that I was a United Church minister. I would dread the question, “And what do you do?” And then watch the people who clam up or worse apologizing for swearing in front of me – like I’d never heard the words or said them. But no more. We have a message of the living God to share and if we don’t tell our stories then no one will know about it.
So here it goes. I love the church. I love that Jesus loves me as we sing in church, “Yes, Jesus loves, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me the bible tells me so.” I love the stories in the bible call me to see things in every new ways. I know when it seems like my life is crumbling around me God is holding me. I love that I can feel the Holy Spirit pushing, nudging, inspiring me to try something different. Church is one of the few places I truly felt comfortable. I think it saved my life when I was a teenager because it was the only place I felt loved for me. On Sunday morning I could walk in through the doors of Edgewood United Church and I could breathe again. I knew that in school I didn’t belong – not with the cool kids and sometimes not even with the people who were my friends. But church was home. My wonderful Sunday School teacher Mary made it a place to explore and think about faith but most importantly to belong. 
Perhaps, if we can find a way to start sharing those stories of grace and forgiveness, those stories of love and acceptance, of our God whose love gives life, we can find every new ways to be the body of Christ for this time and this place. It is our turn to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” and boldly declare, “You are the Messiah, son of the living God.” And then, we like Peter, like all who’ve gone before us, become the rock upon which the church is built. Amen. 

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Links to articles about church attendance and depression:

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Opening our Hearts

The bible is full of wonderful stories, but this is one of my favourites. Just imagine what was going in this woman’s life that she had the nerve to do what she did in a time when men and women didn’t associate much and men had the final say. When asking didn’t work she demanded something of Jesus. Nadia Bolz-Webber (@sarcasticluther) tweeted this morning, “Personally, I like a text where Jesus commends the faith of a sass-mouthed woman.” Whether she’s sass-mouthed or persistent, what happened that day changed everything. 
For some it this is a hard text because Jesus is downright rude. There is none of that compassion that we are used to seeing. The grace in this text doesn’t come from him that for sure. 
Imagine what it was like that day. Jesus and the disciples decided to go to the region Tyre and Sidon which is the traditionally the land of the gentiles – those who are not the people of Israel – descendants of Abraham. Not long after arriving, a woman approaches Jesus and the disciples. She starts saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22) But no one paid attention. Jesus kept walking and the disciples behind him. She was after all a Canaanite woman, a gentile – there was no need to listen to her. Again “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22) Still nothing. 
But she will not be ignored. Her daughter’s life is one the line. She knows about Jesus and what he can do. Again she says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22)  Finally the disciples are tired of this nagging and say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We might as well just say it like it is. Jesus is rude. He is guilty of racism. His mission is not for her kind and he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And he keeps going. 
This is why I love this story. She will not be ignored or put off or told to go home without first getting what she came for. She puts herself in Jesus path and kneels at before him saying, “Lord help me.” (Matthew 15:25) And still Jesus does nothing. Can you believe it? Our Jesus who heals. Our Jesus who is compassionate. Our Jesus who loves us back to life refuses to help this woman whose daughter is being tormented by demons. And then he compares her to dog. He says, her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26) 
Most people would have walked away. First ignored, then dismissed and then insulted. But not this woman. She says “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27) And finally Jesus see her – not where she is from – but her. A mother crying, begging for her daughter’s life to be restored. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:28) And in that moment her daughter is healed. 
And in that moment that Jesus is changed. Jesus us healed. On the surface this an ordinary healing story except that it does not follow the normal pattern of healing stories. Truly the person healed in this text is Jesus. He has a new understanding of his calling. Barbara Brown Taylor writes , “through the Canaanite woman’s faith [Jesus] learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had imagined and there is enough of him to go around [...]Faith works like a lever on him opening his arms wider and wider until there is room for the whole world in them, until he allows them to be nailed open on the cross.” (Seeds of Heaven. p. 63)
The woman in our story was praised for her faith. But it is not only her faith that was amazing but her persistence and intelligence. We owe her thanks because she opens Jesus’ heart to a new way of living and being in the world.
Through her faith is that Jesus is changed. This happens all the time. People come into our lives and leave a mark on us. They change our hearts and set our lives on a new course. It happened with Jesus and can happen with us. It happened to me. When I was at school in Toronto, if I had a lot of work to do for the following week, I would go to the 8am service at the Anglican Church on the corner. It meant that I got to go to church and had more time to finish my assignments. It was a quiet service and usually there were no more than 10 people there. I loved the peace of this service. One Sunday, just before the sermon began I heard the doors of the church bang open and close.  And into the peace and quiet of this service walked a homeless man. He said loudly, “Sorry I’m late.” He sat down in the pew and the smell of someone whose life was spent outdoors filled street filled the sanctuary. And I confess that I resented his presence in that service. He disturbed the peace of my morning. 
My heart was closed. I couldn’t see that just as I needed a place to pray and worship – so did he. The sermon came and went. The ushers were taking up the offering and were just about to pass the man by, when he began searching through his pockets. Gradually he pulled out every coin he had and put it in the offering plate and then apologized for how little it was. 
In that moment I knew that I was wrong to be resentful. I was closed minded and judgmental. In short I looked on his appearance and did not my brother in Christ all I saw was a street person. I needed to be disrupted and have the peace of the morning disturbed. I had grown so used to seeing people living on the street that I lost my compassion. He taught me, reminded me that we are children of God. He who showed me the importance generosity and the importance of giving back to God. 
Just as the Canaanite woman helped Jesus see the world in a new way, he helped me. And that is our calling as a people of faith. To be disturbed and disrupted so that we can see something new. It is in learning from one another that we see the face of God and in respecting the diversity of those in our midst that we truly become the body of Christ in the world. God calls us to reach out beyond ourselves and those who are like us to learn about generosity, faith, hope and love from all those who have a story to tell. You never know when your actions might change someone’s heart or when yours will be changed. In expanding our world view we are taking steps that will bring healing and wholeness to our communities, countries and world. Thanks be to God. Amen. 
We are going to close by blessing one another. Turn to page 349 in your hymn books. As we say, pray these words look at those around you and bless them as the bless you. 

May the Christ who walks on wounded feet
walk with you on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands
stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart
open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet,
and may everyone you meet
see the face of Christ in you. Amen. 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Wrestling with God and Humans

I get back from a lovely vacation and what is the first text for the day? Jacob wrestling with God. That's both the gift and challenge of the lectionary and perhaps God's sense of humour at work. The passage of scripture is at once a challenge and beautiful. The text asks us to consider: "What does it mean for Jacob and for for us to wrestle with God?" I’ve been reading Barbra Brown Taylors new book Learning to Walk in the Dark where she says some of the most significant moments happen as we wrestle in the dark with God.
Jacob knows it only too well. Twice in his life he encounters God and leaves with promise and blessing. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, one of Isaac and Rebecca’s two sons. Jacob is the second son only by minutes. His older brother Esau was born first and Jacob came behind him quickly griping his older brother’s heal. It seems from the before the day that Esau and Jacob were born they were competing with one another. And it was Jacob the younger always striving for what was his older brother’s. The bad family dynamics don’t end there it says in Genesis 25 “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunger, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man living in the tents. Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27)
The ground work for this family feud was planted in fertile soil. Jacob’s grasping after Esau didn’t end with his heal. First Jacob tricks his brother into giving him his birthright and then he tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Jacob had taken everything from his brother and Esau was so angry he plans to kill his brother. The first time Jacob encounters God is as he flees and goes to live with his mother’s brother Laban who is a trickster to match Jacob. 
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Later God would come to Abraham’s Grandson Jacob in the middle of the night, after he fled from the family he betrayed in the worst kind of way. When Jacob could not run any longer, he lay down in the middle of nowhere and fell asleep, dreaming one of those dreams that arrives more like a vision. He saw a ladder with its feet set on the earth and its top reaching toward heaven, with bright angels of God climbing up and down  on it. That was when God said more or less the same thing to Jacob that he said to his grandfather Abraham. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Barbra Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark page 92 – 93)
That is the first time God comes to Jacob. The second is in our passage for today, after Jacob falls madly in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. After he works seven long years to Marry Rachel and ends up marring Leah. After he works another seven long years for Rachel. After Jacob is tired of being tricked and cheated by Laban. After he finally realizes that the only place for him to go is home – back to the family he betrayed. 
So he makes a plan. Jacob sends Esau presents with this message, “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favour in your sight.” (Genesis 32:5) Then return message is this, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Genesis 32:7)
And you can imagine what Jacob is thinking. He is coming for me. So he sends more gifts and indeed his whole family over to meet Esau. He stays behind by himself for the night.
Now Jacob must face all his fears and shortcomings. All night he wrestles with a man. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25) 

But Jacob is tenacious. He will not let go until he gets a blessing. So the figure asks, “what is your name? And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  (Genesis 32:27 – 28) Jacob walks away with a new name but he now walks with a limp.
And isn’t that what we are about as a people of faith? We struggle to understand God and how God calls us to live. We struggle with both faith and doubt. We struggle to live daily as God’s people. And on those nights we come face to face with our fears and shortcomings we like Jacob wrestle with God. And like Jacob, the most important thing we can do is never to let go of God. That means hanging on in spite of doubt and in spite of hard times to God’ promise. 
The breath taking beauty of Jacob’s story is not that Jacob was perfect he wasn’t. What amazes me every time is that God chooses him even though he betrays his family, even though he is a liar and a cheat. God chooses Jacob not for anything he is yet to be but just as he is. Then God blesses him and gives him a new name. And if God will do that for Jacob, then God will do that for you and for you. And that my friends is God’s abiding, amazing, transforming grace. Amen.